AN INVASIVE fungal disease killing ash trees will cost the British economy nearly £15 billion in total, Oxford University researchers have warned.

Ash dieback, which is lethal to European ash trees, originated in Asia and is thought to have been brought to the UK on imported ash trees some years before it was first identified in Britain in 2012.

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Now experts have calculated a multi-billion pound bill for the disease, with the costs expected will be more than £7 billion in the next 10 years alone.

Dr Louise Hill, from Oxford University and lead author of the study, said the number of invasive tree pests and diseases were increasingly rapidly, mostly through human activities such as plant trade and climate change.

She added: “Nobody has estimated the total cost of a tree disease before, and we were quite shocked at the magnitude of the cost to society.

“We estimate the total may be £15 billion – that’s a third more than the reported cost of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

“The consequences of tree diseases for people really haven’t been fully appreciated before now.”

The biggest cost will be from the loss of benefits that woods and trees provide, such as clean air and water and storing carbon dioxide, the study published in the journal Current Biology found.

Clean-up costs, such as felling dangerous trees on roadsides, railway lines and in towns and cities, will cost about £4.8 billion, researchers from Oxford University, Fera Science, Sylva Foundation and the Woodland Trust concluded.

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Much of that burden will fall on local authorities, with an estimate the worst hit, Devon County Council, could face total annual costs from roadside ash trees of more than £30 million, vastly higher than the average council tree budget.

The total bill for the UK is estimated to come in at £14.8 billion over 100 years.